BONUS Episode: How To Lead a Great Nature Field Trip

BONUS Short: Leading Great Nature Field Trips Nature's Archive


Hi Again Everyone! Michael here.

I’m recording this a few hours after receiving my first COVID vaccine! So far I feel fine, and I’m excited at the prospect of a gradual return to normalcy over the coming months. I’d blocked out today to relax and recover, and since I’m feeling good, I decided I’d finally get around to recording this long-planned bonus episode.

First up, this episode should land just a few days before the City Nature Challenge. If you’re unaware, the City Nature Challenge is a global friendly competition among cities to document the most biodiversity using iNaturalist

The challenge runs from your local time midnight the morning of April 30 to the end of May 3. If you haven’t used iNaturalist, there is an app and a website where you can upload photos and audio of what you see. All life or evidence of life is fair game, so don’t overlook things like mosses, fungi, scat, abandoned wasp nests – you get the idea! And you don’t have to be an expert in identification. You can post identifications as simple as “insect” or “flowering plant”, or even “life” if you are truly baffled by what you found.

It’s a great opportunity to get outside and learn, and get your kids and family involved. 

I’ll post links with the details, including a list of cities participating and local sponsors. It’s quite likely that the local sponsors may have organized field trips or created helpful guides. You might need to do some googling to see.  And if you aren’t near a city or your city didn’t organize to participate, that’s OK. There is a “global” project as well.

Here is my iNaturalist getting started guide, and the official getting started documentation.

Episodes Coming Soon

Before we jump into today’s episode, I want to tell you about a couple great episodes coming soon. May 3 my episode with The Prairie Ecologist lands, and we’ll talk about prairies of course, but also photography and how to engage in environmental education with people who might not be environmentally minded. Later in May you’ll get to hear all about bird observatories – and some fascinating puma, or mountain lion research  with Dr. Yiwei Wang.

How To Lead a Great Nature Field Trip

On to today’s episode, it’s a bonus episode. In the spirit of experimentation, I thought I’d offer a short tutorial on what it takes to create and lead a great nature field trip. Some of the things I’ll talk about today also apply to other educational and outreach activities.

Why am I doing this? Well, it’s springtime in the northern hemisphere, and I’ve come to learn that a good chunk of you, my audience are naturalists and docents who lead field trips for your organizations. I’m hoping this episode might serve as a useful tool for you to use in your organizations.

Please check out the show notes at for this full transcript and links to resources. Again, please share this episode with any people or groups whom you think would benefit.

And if you’re looking for my standard nature interview content, look for the prairie ecologist interview on May 3. And please let me know what you think of this experimental episode by contacting me on or message me through my social media accounts.

Why I’m Passionate About Good Field Education?

Before jumping into the core content, let me tell you why I’m passionate about this subject. My day job has required that I prepare educational material for many years. I’ve taken courses and have a lot of practice communicating difficult concepts and making those concepts relatable to audiences of all types.

I also have a few years of experience leading nature oriented field trips for a variety of organizations, and more years attending them. I’ve experienced great trips and terrible trips.

I also recently obtained a Certified Interpretive Guide certification from the National Association of Interpretation.

Through all of these experiences I’ve been collecting notes, tips, and practices that make for a great field trip – which is what I’m sharing today.

So let’s jump in.

Field Trip Framework

Let’s first talk about the framework for putting a field trip together. Then we’ll get into the tips and best practices, which I feel are what take a field trip from good to great. Or considered another way, the framework I use covers “the what, where, and why” of the trip. And those best practices I mentioned  cover “the how” of the trip.

The framework I follow is: pick your subject, create a theme and identify a few sub-themes. Since we’re talking about field trips, you also must pick your location and know specifically where in the field that you’ll discuss your sub-themes. This usually means that you need to know the location well, or you’ll need to scout the location and be flexible in adjusting your sub-themes.

So let’s walk through this process.

Pick a Subject, Create a Theme

First, pick a subject. Maybe it’s bird watching, maybe it is plant identification, or anything else you are passionate about. But make sure you are passionate about it, because your enthusiasm will be contagious. At this point your subject can be broad.

Next, create a theme for the field trip. From experience, I know that half of you are rolling your eyes at this point. Afterall, you just want to show people cool birds or fungi or whatever. Why do you need a theme? Well, people naturally learn through stories. We rationalize the past through stories, and we take more meaning when we see how things “fit together”. A good theme is going to allow you to show your attendees how things fit together, allowing them to take away a broader message that they will be able to retell.

A good theme will also help you set an expectation about the trip. We’ll talk more about setting expectations shortly.

A theme also gives you, the leader, some assurance that even if the things you expect to see don’t turn up or don’t cooperate, you’ll have a few cornerstones to rely on – basically a sturdy scaffolding around which all of the trip’s experiences will fill in.

You’ll also want your theme to relate to the mission of the organization for which you are giving the trip. This will help attendees understand the broader mission of the organization, and hopefully plant a seed for their further involvement.

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that spending an extra few minutes to develop a theme is worth it, but what is a theme?

Simply put, a theme is the broad conclusion you’d like your audience to reach. Usually you want to be able to clearly state it in the form of a complete sentence.

For example, you could have a theme of “Native grasslands support a surprising array of bird species”, or “Wildfire is an important ingredient for biodiversity”, or “Early spring is an optimal time to find and identify fungi”. Even if you are a hard core birder and your trip is simply to rack up as many species in a day as possible, you can easily create a theme about the strategy of visiting varied habitats, for example.

After creating your theme, you’ll want to identify a few sub-themes that you can speak to. My default is to pick three. If you have a very long trip, you might choose a few more.

Using the “native grasslands support a surprising array of bird species” theme, I might pick sub-themes like “Grasshopper sparrows are easy to hear but hard to see”, “Nesting habits of grassland birds are highly varied”, and “Bird diversity is increased when you have edge habitat”.

It’s a common mistake to speak to all of your themes early in a trip because we’re usually excited to share! But be patient. Be deliberate and think in advance about how to space out these discussions on the trip route that you planned. Of course, I’ll work these in between the excitement of spotting and observing the birds that we do find, and relate these topics to the specific birds we see.

When considering the location of the trip and the spacing of the sub-themes, sometimes you can use your route and terrain to your advantage. For example, you might choose to discuss one of your sub-themes mid-way up a steep part of a trail, to create a natural break and rest stop.

So now that you have the what, where, and why of the trip, we need to think about how you’ll implement this trip. I referred to this as “the how” earlier, and I feel these practices are equally as important because they take your trip from good to great.

The How – Tips and Best Practices

To organize these various practices, I’ll start with an overarching requirement to set expectations.  Then we will walk through the practices to use during planning, and at the beginning, middle, and end of the trip.

Expectation setting is critical for a successful trip. And while I’m not going to talk about promoting or marketing your trip, know that it is equally important to set an accurate expectation in your promotional material as it is in-person.

You may have heard the expression “it’s better to set low expectations and exceed them than set high expectations and miss them”. And while I’m not suggesting you set low expectations, the bottom line is that you want to set a realistic expectation about the trip. Make it clear how long the trip will be, talk about the pace, how strenuous it will be. Talk about what you expect to see versus what you hope to see – and make that distinction clear. For example, you probably don’t want to name your field trip “Viewing the California Condor” unless you have a high likelihood of seeing one. And even then, set the expectation that there are always off days, but you still expect to see plenty of cool things.

Almost equally as bad as setting too high of an expectation is setting no expectation. This leaves the visitor’s perception of success to chance – based on whatever expectation they independently set.

So let’s talk about planning your trip. Make sure you limit the trip size to an appropriate number. If you are the only trip leader, you may only be able to take a small number or participants. Or you can recruit a partner or someone to function as a “sweep” to help those who are unable to keep pace or to help answer questions for a large group.

The type of path or trail and the use of those trails may also limit size. A narrow single track trail will space people out more. Mixed use trails with bicycles might also limit the size you can manage to avoid blocking the trail and causing safety concerns.

Consider how people will get to the location, how many cars fit in the lot, whether there are bathrooms, and if there is a fee at the location, and set expectations accordingly.

Starting the Trip – Address Basic Needs, Set Expectations

As people arrive, make it clear that they are in the right place, perhaps through signage or clothing that indicates your affiliation.

At the start time, introduce yourself, discuss the organization you represent and the theme of the trip. When you introduce yourself and the theme, give your audience a personal connection – why you in particular are passionate about this trip. This could be as simple as “I love this location because I’ve been coming here since the age of 8, and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned.”

Then, use this as an opportunity to learn about the audience and set expectations.

  • For small groups: a short first name introduction and answer to a basic question is good. “What are you hoping to see today?” or “Why did you decide to join this hike?”
  • For any size group: ask if there are any experts in your group -biologists, geologists, birders, native plant society members. Engage these people and leverage their expertise. More often than not they’ll be happy to help and will feel more connected. And the end result will be a more gratifying experience for all.
  • Give a short overview of the plan for the day, review how long the trip is, when you’ll be back (estimate high – it is better to be back early), whether there are restrooms, what you hope to see, and whether there will be breaks.
  • Review trip safety – things like poison oak, rattlesnakes, keeping kids nearby, sharing the trail with bicycles or horses, and staying with the group.
  • Ask if there are any questions.

During the Trip

  • The pace is as much about how much you talk as how fast you walk. 
  • It can be tempting to stop and talk a lot at the beginning, because everything is new. But pace your discussion based on your route. Hold some talking points for later.
  • Save some talking points for strenuous parts of the route to create natural breaks. Or allow more walking early on chilly mornings to help people warm up.
  • Make sure to wait until the slower members arrive to start covering your core topics. This ensures they hear what you have to say, and avoids the pitfall of not allowing the slower people to have a break. Of course, sometimes wildlife won’t wait, so use your judgement. 
  • Adjust your speed to the slower members, especially if health or ability is slowing them down. If you have a second leader or “sweep”, you may have more flexibility.
  • Face the sun when speaking to the group. This allows the group to face away from the sun.
  • If space permits, try to get into the center of the group so all can hear you.
  • Share in the enjoyment when a group member sees new things, even if it is the 100th time you’ve personally seen it. Offer congratulations and enthusiasm!

Ending the Trip

  • An informal recap is a nice way to end. Ideally, you can review your themes and sub-themes, and relate it to an experience from the trip.
  • Consider a leading question to the group about “what they’re going to tell people at work about what you did on the weekend”.
  • Mention where people can get more information, such as your organization’s website.
  • Be sure to thank everyone!
  • Ask for feedback and suggestions.

Today I’ve provided what is essentially a quick-start guide to field trips – essentially the 80/20 Rule, or Pareto Principle approach where I focused on obtaining 80% of the most important outcomes using the 20% most important concepts. Getting beyond 80% takes a lot of time, dedication, and practice. But if you want to start considering what it might take, here a few thoughts.

Depending on the formality of your field trip, there may be other considerations. You might have handouts or other materials. Sensitive habitats might require special precautions to prevent pathogen spread. If your trip has grant funding or other drivers that require more formality, there may be a need to gather quantifiable feedback from attendees in some form.

The NAI’s Certified Interpretive Guide course also provides many additional tools and methods to help you connect with your audience, and there are many online resources as well.

OK, so there you have it – a short crash course on creating and leading successful nature field trips.

Do you have any specific tips or experiences you’d like to share? Or any other feedback about this bonus episode or my standard episodes? If so, please email me at

Thank you for listening!

Music Credits

Opening – Fearless First by Kevin MacLoed

Closing – Beauty Flow by Kevin MacLoed

Both can be obtained from

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